All Mortal Flesh

A Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mystery

Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries (Volume 5)

Julia Spencer-Fleming

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One
 
Monday, January 14
 
 Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, where the right road was wholly lost and gone.   
 
            Clare smelled the smoke first. She came to a standstill, breathing in the chill and windless air. Pine tar and wet wool and the frozen freshwater smell of snow. And smoke. She had crammed as many logs as she could into the cabin’s woodstove before she left that morning, but they would have burnt down into glowing cinders by now, their smoke long vanished into the air.
 
So. Someone had stoked the woodstove. She wasn’t alone. She clutched her poles and almost—almost—turned back into the woods. She had food and matches and a blanket and a knife in her day pack. She could escape.
 
A cold touch on her bare hand startled her. A single fat snowflake melted onto her skin. As she watched, another fell. Then another. She sighed. There was no escape. She trudged forward, breaking through the last of the hemlock and white pine, clambering over a hard-packed wall of snow thrown up in the wake of the private road’s plowing.
 
Gathering her poles in one hand, she sprung her bindings, stepped free of her snowshoes, and scooped them up with her free hand. Her legs felt shaky and insubstantial as she tottered toward the cabin.
 
Thank God, thank God, she didn’t recognize the SUV parked next to her car. It was a clean, late-model Scout, anonymous in this area where everyone spent the winter in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. She supposed it could belong to a relative of the cabin’s owner. Mr. Fitzgerald had offered the place when she told the congregation she was looking for a post-Christmas retreat, but he was into his early eighties and perhaps had forgotten promising the space to a grandkid.
 
She mounted the steps to the uncovered front deck and hung her snowshoes and poles on two of a row of pegs jutting from the log wall. Please, Lord, let it not be someone from my congregation. Anyone making the hour-and-a-half drive from Millers Kill would have to be hurting bad. I don’t have it in me to minister right now. She opened the door.
 
The man rooting beneath the kitchen counter stood up and up and up before turning toward her. “Ms. Fergusson. Finally. I confess, I was beginning to feel a bit concerned.”
 
Clare blinked. “Father Aberforth?” She looked around, as if there might be someone else who could explain why Albany’s diocesan deacon-at-large was standing in the kitchen on a Monday afternoon holding a battered teakettle. The open floor plan didn’t leave much scope for hiding, however, unless the presiding bishop was lurking in the bathroom. “What are you doing here?”
 
Father Aberforth plunked the kettle into the sink and twisted the tap on. “Making tea.” He gestured behind her. “You might want to shut the door before you let all the heat out.”
 
She kicked the door closed without turning around. “I’ve been on retreat.” Her voice sounded shaky, as if she were excusing her absence from her parish. Willard Aberforth was known as the bishop of Albany’s hit man, a scarecrow in black who dealt discreetly and firmly with problem priests. And she, they both knew, was a problem priest. Or at least a priest with a problem.
 
“I hadn’t forgotten that,” he said dryly, shutting off the water and swinging the kettle onto the stove. “I spoke to Father Lawrence before driving up here. To see how everything went. He said you had called him and told him you were coming back early?”
 
“Tomorrow morning.”
 
“You had Wednesday to Wednesday, you know.”
 
“I know. I just . . . I did what I came up here to do. Now I think getting back to work will be good for me.”
 
Aberforth raised his eyebrows, unfurling an expanse of sagging skin. “Do you have concerns about Father Lawrence’s abilities? I’m the one who approved him as your supply priest for the week, you know.”
 
“Ah. No. No worries. He seemed quite”—geriatric—“nice. When I briefed him. Experienced. Very experienced.”
 
“He was a good friend of your predecessor.”
 
The late, lamented Father Hames, who had become St. Alban’s priest around the time Betty Grable was a pin-up girl.
 
“I believed he and your parishioners would feel quite comfortable together.”
 
She had thought, after the events of the past night, that her reserves of grief and dread were plumbed out, but she felt a fresh upwelling of fear at his words. “Are you . . . is the bishop suspending me?”
 
Father Aberforth looked at her. He had once been a younger and heavier man, and his face fell in deceptively drooping folds, but his black eyes showed that inside he was still all hard lines and angles. “Does that thought distress you?”
 
“Yes!” She was surprised how much. Over the past four months, she had been praying for some sign that she was in the right place, that God intended her to be a parish priest rather than a social worker or a chaplain or a helicopter pilot—her old, easy calling. God had remained resolutely silent on the matter. Maybe now He was talking to her, in the sick clench of her gut.
 
Father Aberforth nodded. “I thought it might. The answer is no, the bishop is not suspending you from your duties.”
 
The last of her energy left her body with her breath. Clare let her day pack thud to the floor and collapsed into a nearby sofa without bothering to remove her parka. She heard the click-click-clicking of the burner as Aberforth turned on the gas and a whoosh as his match lit the ring into flame. “I know you’re a coffee fiend, but there must be tea here somewhere,” he said.
 
“In the pantry. In one of the Tupperware boxes.” She listened to Aberforth rummage around, the clink and clunk of mugs and spoons and the sugar tin, and she could hear her grandmother Fergusson chiding her to get up and act the hostess, but for once she couldn’t bring herself to care about Doing the Right Thing. She sat there dully, rubbing her hands over the smooth twill of the sofa cushions.
 
The kettle whistled shrilly and cut off. “Do you take your tea the same way you do your coffee? Ridiculously sweet?”
 
“Gosh,” she said. “You remember.” She waited without expectation as he crossed the floor and set a mug on the table in front of her. He folded himself into one of the leather Eames-style chairs opposite the sofa. It wasn’t meant for Aberforth’s storklike six and a half feet, and he struggled to get comfortable for a moment before snatching a kilim pillow off the companion chair and stuffing it beneath his knees.
 
“Idiotic furniture,” he said. “Where did you find this place?”
 
“Belongs to one of my parishioners,” she said. “He doesn’t use it very much since his wife died a few years ago.”
 
Father Aberforth grunted. “Drink your tea. You look half dead.”
 
She reached for the hot mug with as little effort as possible and managed a few sips. “What are you doing here, Father? I didn’t think we were due for another chat until after I had sorted myself out up here.”
 
“My visit has two purposes.”
 
Clare smiled to herself. Who but Willard Aberforth talked like that?
 
“First, to tell you that the bishop has assigned you a new deacon.”
 
She cradled the warm mug between her hands. “I don’t need an assistant.”
 
“This will be a full-time position, salary paid for by the diocese.”
 
Clare looked closely at the old man. “St. Alban’s isn’t large enough or prosperous enough to warrant a full-time deacon.”
 
“Nevertheless.”
 
The penny dropped. “I’m getting a babysitter.”
 
“Consider her more of a guide. To keep you on the straight and narrow.”
 
“Emphasis on the straight.” It had been her celebration of a gay union the year before that originally brought her to the bishop’s—and Aberforth’s—attention. She had broken her vows of obedience and flouted the bishop’s policy toward homosexuals, both faults she had admitted but failed to repent of. She had been waiting for the bishop’s reaction since last November, but the flaming car crash that was her personal life had kept her distracted. Now she tweaked to something else Aberforth had said. “Her?”
 
“The Reverend Elizabeth de Groot. She was raised up from St. James in Schuylerville. Since you’ll be back tomorrow, I’ll let her know she can report for duty as of Tuesday.”
 
“Is she transitional?” That is, on the road to priesthood, which would give Clare some chance that the woman would be shuffled off to another parish within a year.
 
“Oh no. She’s a career deacon. She was ordained over a decade ago after helping build St. Stephen’s into the church it is today as a volunteer and a vestry member and a warden.”
 
Clare translated that to mean old enough to be your mother and has already seen it all twice. “What’s she like?”
 
“An elegant lady. Dignified. She has a lovely sense of tradition.”
 
Clare translated that to mean so high church she makes the archbishop of Canterbury look like a guitar-strumming folksinger. She sighed. It wasn’t as if there were anything she could do. As a response to her transgressions, it was fairly mild. “So that’s the one thing,” she said. “What’s the other?”
 
Father Aberforth fussed a bit with his tea. “I came to check on you. To see if you needed to talk. Having found myself in the position of your confessor.”
 
Clare smiled faintly. “You can’t take confession.” Despite his honorary title of “Father,” the deacon was not eligible to act as God’s intermediary when people spilled their most painful secrets. Still, he probably believed more wholeheartedly in the rite than did Clare, who forgave sins on a weekly basis.
 
“It wouldn’t do you any good if you weren’t prepared to repent and mend your ways,” he said. She could feel her cheeks coloring. “Yes, I thought this retreat had more to do with your situation than with some post-Christmas and Epiphany exhaustion. Have you figured out what you’re going to do with this married man of yours?” He craned his neck, trying to peer over the edge of the upstairs loft. “He’s not staying here with you, is he?”
 
She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “No. No, he isn’t.”
 
He pierced her with his black eyes. “I’m not here to judge you, girl. You think you’re the first sheep to wander out of the fold because greener pastures beckon?” He reached for his tea. “At least you show some originality. Most priests who dabble in adultery go for the music director or one of the warden’s wives. The town’s chief of police—that’s novel. Not too bright, but novel.”
 
“Don’t hold back. Please, tell me what you think.”
 
“Straight talking is exactly what you need at this point, Ms. Fergusson.”
 
He was right, and she knew it. The deacon made for a strange confidante—he didn’t approve of women priests, he was formal to the point of eccentricity, and, most damning of all, he reported directly to her boss. But there was something about his dry, unsentimental demeanor that had made it easy, over the past two months, to tell him everything. About how lonely she had been, a stranger in a strange place, looking out onto a sea of faces waiting expectantly for her to either fail miserably or to walk on water. About making friends with the only person in town who looked at her and saw plain old Clare Fergusson instead of a bundle of assumptions in a dog collar. About walking farther and farther away from the narrow, well-lit path with Russ Van Alstyne, talking and laughing and ignoring the signs screaming danger: off trail and entering unpatrolled land and go no farther this means you and then being surprised—surprised!—when she looked around and found she was utterly lost.
 
Something of the wilderness must have shown in her face, because Aberforth leaned forward awkwardly against his Eames-spindled knees and said, “I haven’t said anything to the bishop yet, but you’re going to need to come to a decision soon, Ms. Fergusson. Not for him or for me or for the people in your parish. For the sake of your own soul.”
 
She nodded mechanically. “I know, Father. And I’ve . . .” Her voice faded off. How could she describe the past few weeks? Days? These last terrible hours? “I’ve taken steps.”
 
She picked up her mug of tea, watching with a clinical interest as her hand shook. “Unless something extraordinary happens, I do not expect to see Russ Van Alstyne again.”
 
Copyright © 2006 by Julia Spencer-Fleming